Freedom and Ms. Hempel

My essay about two excellent novels at The Nervous Breakdown is now up:

More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.


Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

Two years ago, I had Mary Gaitskill sign a copy of her second novel, Veronica, at the Brooklyn Bookfest.  I’m not a fan of buying books at list price — you’d think that as a writer myself, I’d be supportive of paying full retail, but no, I’m a cheap bastard at heart and would’ve preferred to have purchased it off of Amazon.  But I hadn’t realized she’d be there, so I bought a copy and stood in line.  And it was a line, at least a dozen people ahead of me.

When my turn came, I told her how much I enjoyed her first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin.  It wasn’t a perfect book, but I liked how she juggled a story of a complicated relationship between two unevenly-matched women (one pretty, one not) and also a satire of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  The book wasn’t particularly well received, but it was a worthy effort, and nonetheless enjoyable because Gaitskill takes great care to craft her prose.  So even when the plot goes offline a bit, she can always fall back on her gorgeous sentences.

Veronica is her second novel, and it was praised lavishly, becoming a National Book Award Finalist in 2005.  Like most books I read nowadays, it took months for me to get through it, but it’s funny — with Veronica, the pace seemed right.  There’s a structure to the novel, with the current timeline occurring within twenty-four hours, but really, this is a novel of memory, so within a matter of a few sentences in a single paragraph, we may rocket through twenty years, so we’re not talking about a continuous narrative in the traditional sense.  I must’ve stopped and started this book a hundred times, reading two or three bites of pages, but I never lost my place or forgot any of the characters.

The story is simple: Alison, now almost fifty, narrates her tumultuous story of modeling in Paris and New York, her bad relationships with men, and her parents and two sisters.  So who’s Veronica, and where is she?  She’s a woman Alison meets when she temps in a office in between her modeling, but Veronica really isn’t in the first half of the book.  Gaitskill keeps reminding us of her eventual entrance, though, as Alison recalls slivers of her within her remembrances.  Veronica begins to become prominent midway through the novel, and then in the last third, she becomes a tragic focal point.

If you’ve read Gaitskill before, nothing here will surprise you, content-wise.  There’s violent, ugly sex rendered with great beauty, characters with enough self-hatred to depress the self-help sections of any bookstore, people who seem to exist for the sole sake of experiencing misery.  If you haven’t read Gaitskill, you might want to start with her short story collections, because she might go down easier at shorter doses.

But for me, I love this torture of a novel.  It feels as if she was less concerned with the mechanics of writing a longer work this time around, and it was the right choice.  My only wish is that it stops on page 245.  There are some loose ends that are tied in the last section, but in a book like this, loose ends would play even better.